Sleight difference

With sold-out shows and celebrity clientele, magician Steve Cohen is living the suite life.

LEGERDEMAIN EVENT Classic parlor tricks are Cohen’s calling card.

LEGERDEMAIN EVENT Classic parlor tricks are Cohen’s calling card. Photograph: Rebecca Mcalpin

On a recent Friday evening at the Waldorf-Astoria, expert conjurer Steve Cohen asked his guests to name their favorite beverages. Moments later, the requested refreshments—ranging from margaritas to Yoo-hoo—poured miraculously, glass by glass, out of a single teapot, as Cohen went around the room serving various audience members. “Would you like that pink or yellow?” Cohen asked a woman about her Diet Snapple Lemonade. “Pink,” she replied, and the silver spout—from which a few ounces of pinot grigio flowed only seconds earlier— decanted a glass full of the artifically-sweetened concoction. (The volunteer confirmed it tasted just right.)

Every Friday, Chamber Magic, Cohen’s 75-minute mind-reading, storytelling and sleight-of-hand routine, dazzles audiences in one of the Waldorf’s luxurious suites. (On this particular evening it was the room in which President Johnson met Pope Paul VI in 1965.) “This is the longest running one-man show in the history of New York,” Cohen brags of his seven-year stint, “and it’s sold out every week.”

Chamber Magic stands apart from the kind of daredevil magic stunts that proliferate today (Criss Angel’s cement-box escape in Times Square earlier this month, to name one). Cohen, a natty dresser who favors three-piece-suits and cravats, takes his cue from the sort of private parlor engagements that were popular upper-class diversions in 19th- century Europe. The Friday evening show is a relatively intimate affair, open to no more than 50 people at one time and eschewing any Copperfieldian flashiness (as in the cheesy magician, not the Dickens protagonist). You won’t likely miss the smoke and mirrors, though: Being two feet from Cohen’s hands when he makes audience members’ wedding rings link together is more thrilling than watching a jaded magician’s assistant get sawed in half for the umpteenth time.

A native of Chappaqua, New York, Cohen, 36, began performing as a child in the late ’70s, when his great- uncle, a student of Harry Houdini, taught him his first trick. “It was like an addiction,” Cohen explains. “When I got my first paying gig at the age of ten, I got great feedback. And at the time, $25 was a lot.”

So how’s tricks? With a fan base that includes Martha Stewart, Stephen Sondheim and Mayor Bloomberg, Cohen’s fortunes have risen considerably from the early days: Forbes magazine reported the “Millionaire’s Magician” (as Cohen calls himself) raked in seven figures in 2005 alone. In one made-to-order performance at Stewart’s house a few years ago, Cohen told the media magnate to choose a word at random from a page of one of her books, promising that he would read her mind and project the word into an empty basket hanging above her head. Down came the basket with a loaf of bread in it. “I was thinking of thread, not bread,” Cohen recalled Stewart saying. He encouraged her to look inside the freshly baked gift. She broke open the loaf and out popped, miraculously, three spools of thread.

Such spectacles are the result of very careful scheming. “One of the things that appeals to me about magic is the planning stage,” says Cohen. “It requires not just sleight of hand but also the understanding of how people think. You have to come up with diabolical methods to short-circuit where people’s minds are going to go.”

To disarm his guests, the Millionaire’s Magician chats away throughout the performance. (In one notable anecdote, he recounts how he accidentally shattered the gears in the CEO of Rolex’s watch while performing a trick.) Cohen, who majored in psychology at Cornell, claims this approach is what helps him read people so effectively. “It’s like hypnosis, where everyone becomes one big group-mind. I’ve designed the show so I can put people in that state,” he says. “It sounds kind of scary, but it’s all for fun. I’m not trying to make people drink the Kool-Aid or anything.” He may, however, get you to drink the Yoo-hoo.

Chamber Magic runs Fridays at 7 and 9pm at the Waldorf-Astoria.